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How Nicolas Bougaïeff overcame techno orthodoxy

The Berlin-based musician behind The Upward Spiral talks optimism, challenges, and the trap of live-streamed concerts.

July 24, 2020
How Nicolas Bougaïeff overcame techno orthodoxy Photo by Mischa Fanghaenel  

In the midst of a global pandemic and unrelenting social upheaval, Nicolas Bougaïeff stands firm: “Pessimism is so passé,” the Quebec-born and Berlin-based musician tells me over Skype. We’re speaking about the crux of his new album The Upward Spiral, Bougaïeff’s full-length debut for the storied electronic music label Mute. A tidal wave of brutalist techno structures with dance floor foundations, The Upward Spiral was painstakingly constructed with unity in mind, even if its superficial appearance isn’t sweet and cuddly. “There was a certain romance about negative views,” Bougaïeff says of his previous releases, and lets out the unmistakable sigh of a lesson learned. “At one point I realized they were wrong. This album was the act of crystallization.”

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While the word “crystallization” suggests immutability, the interdisciplinary is a near-constant marker throughout Bougaïeff’s discography. Each of the 24 short tracks on 2018’s 24 Miniatures got a physical representation courtesy of visual artist Elena Guyader, who turned each song into a sculpture. Bougaïeff, whose songs often have the urgency of the third act of a blockbuster, is frequently inspired in his music by science fiction literature from George Orwell (2017’s Principles of Newspeak) to Greg Egan (the 2018 EP Dust). This collaboration of influence exchanges outside of Bougaïeff as well; in theory and in practice, Bougaïeff says he feels an urgent need to emphasize collectivity. “The dichotomy between body and mind is false,” he says. “That false dichotomy extends to the scale of groups of people. We've spent too much time focusing on the two different components of that dichotomy and not nearly enough time on unity.”

Bougaïeff’s education and professional work are formidable. A classically trained musician, he studied electroacoustic composition studies at the Conservatoire in Montreal and received a PhD in minimal techno from the University of Huddersfield. As a part of Liine, he co-developed the MIDI controller app Lemur, which has been used by Nine Inch Nails, Björk, and in space by astronauts. He says he knows how to create what he wants, and if that potential creation has been manifested before. Rather than bog The Upward Spiral down in sonic abstractions, Bougaïeff emphasizes the accessible: four-on-the-floor, cyberpunk synths, the pulse-quickening build.

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Our interview, which has been edited for clarity, was conducted in early June. Our global circumstances have given us even more reasons to despair than last month, and that makes Bougaïeff’s words on identifying retrograde frameworks and reworking them ring even truer.

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Was the process for writing the album much different than for your previous releases for EPs?

I suspected that we were working in boxes. Even to the point, that idea was in the back of my mind, I remember it was January 2017. I was with some friends and we went out to Kit-Kat club and another club in Berlin, and at 4:00 or 5:00 AM, the dance moves I was doing were, like, moving boxes around. Stacking boxes. I just thought it was really funny. And then years later, two, three years later, I said, "Wait a minute. That idea was gnawing away at me."

My previous albums, it was doing an empirical experiment to confirm if in fact, yes, we have been as a collective of music consumers and music producers, operating in fairly strict boxes. And the answer is yes. Yes, we were. The proof is in the pudding. People responded when I worked in boxes, and didn't respond when I didn't work in the boxes. And then when I confirmed that, I started mapping out how the boxes operate. So I mapped them out, methodically, A to Z, the whole grid. And then once that's done, then I could start playing with defining the boxes themselves. And that's when it gets to be fun, when you work on the level of structure. So much music is taking a structure as a given and painting by numbers inside of that. And that's fine. There's a time and place for that, but it ain't my mission.

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So your album is an acknowledgement of those boxes, but it doesn't participate in them.

Yeah. Correct. If you want to be a team player, you can't go around hitting people over the head with a rolled up newspaper. You got to build bridges and how you do it is you figure out which parts of the box are necessary and which part of the boxes you can unfold to make bridges. Once you unfold one of those sides of the square, I mean, then you can build any other shapes. But with the album, I did it with the sounds.

I spoke with an artist recently who designs his own synthesizers and drum machines, and he says that part of the reason he does this is because he dislikes getting stuck with factory presets. So as a musician and as someone who also designs equipment, what are your thoughts on that?

Those factory sounds need some love too. The perspective I would propose is the following; any decisions about musical materials, be they immaterial structures or be they physical machines, or be they like sample data and audio data, which samples to use, all of that should derive from an intention and a purpose and a meaning. The important thing is to have clarity of intention and let's hope it's honorable. But that's your own responsibility. We don't need to be orthodox, just for the sake of orthodoxy. No, rather the choice of instruments, samples, techniques, should be a result of deciding which techniques, samples best serve the purpose. My choice of sound and structures, and in my album, The Upward Spiral were chosen very, very specifically to serve the purpose of unboxing the mind, mine first, and who knows?

I assume you've seen videos online of these drive-in raves or socially distant electronic music performances. I just wanted to get a sense of as a performer and as a musician, what your thoughts on them are and if you think that's a viable future?

No, it is not. It is a friendly, useful substitute, but it's beside the point; now is the time to take the opportunity to change our structures. It is [comforting] to create a substitute which gives a virtualization of the thing we're looking for. No, friends. Let's change the world and make sure that we don't get into this stupid situation again. Please.

Transform the structures so that we do have a global system of information sharing and organization so that when the next virus that comes out, we put the system into place to contain it. Change the systems to allocate proper funds to healthcare and education and emergency support. Put in place the systems to provide a basic income, not just for the freelancers and artists in Berlin. Spending time to create substitutes is not where we need to be putting our main focus and the most of our energies. It's nice. Sure. But I mean, a piece of cake is also nice. Lots of things that are very nice, but that are not very high on the list of importance.

The whole point of a rave, it used to be a place where we could experiment with social dynamics, social boundaries, and social structures, at least in a little microcosm for a short time. Tell you what I like about the rave: I like the architecture. I like the space. I like the banging sound systems. I like the drugs. I like the fucking. I like the people. I like the fashion. I like the otherworldliness. I like the freedom. I like the proximity. I like that I can go there and hide. And some Berlin clubs, they've got wild, wild architecture and you can have within 50 meters a place where you're a sardine box on the dance floor and then a place where you're hidden in the concrete labyrinths. How many of those things do we get when we watch the rave live stream at home? None of them. Zero.

The Berlin clubs are renowned for saying no photography. Now it's upside-down world, it's only photography. What does this tell us that we need to shoehorn black into white, up into down? No. What it tells us is we need to have a good, hard look at how the world is operating to make sure that we get what we actually want and what is valuable, the sense of where we can explore lack of boundaries, proximity. It is a fine substitute to enjoy some contact. But man, we're putting way, way, way, way, way too much energy and focusing these substitutes and way not enough energy into changing the world to make sure that we live how we want to live.

How Nicolas Bougaïeff overcame techno orthodoxy