Christian Grass is a busy guy. Besides spearheading two musical outfits - the Electropop act Concise and the lush Electro/Industrial project High Wycombe - he maintains his own imprint, Wycombe Music, as a means to release his own music and the works of his friends and acquaintances. The latest High Wycombe album, Reverser, is an astounding mixture of atmospheres and infectious rhythms that deserves a place in any electronic fan's collection. Having tapped the skills of the musicians from Concise to assist in bringing the soundscapes of High Wycombe to the stage along with a light and video show to compliment the music it's amazing that Grass was able to take some time out to chat with DarkTwinCities. But we're appreciative that he allowed us the opportunity to pick his brain.
Interview by Christopher Roddy
DTC: You've been working on putting together a stage show for a live set. How has that been going and how do you approach live performances from a visual standpoint? Do you feel it's important to offer more than just the standard "standing up on stage with our laptops/instruments" approach?
Christian Grass: It isn't really news that it's much more difficult for electronic musicians to setup an exciting performance which inspires the audience, especially if your project is largely unknown. With our electro pop band Concise we got a lot of practice at combining with live musicians on drums and guitar. My personal aim was to setup a perfect light and video show to support the live experience. Therefore I developed a direct MIDI-to-DMX control for light and video footage that is unique from most other techniques. I think that everybody who makes music with computers is quite able to stand in front of the audience and run up their sequencers but the real challenge is to include the viewers with the music and a live show along with some moments of unexpectedness. And this can't happen when it's just you with your laptop on stage.
DTC: What's your perspective on the American music market and how important is it to you to achieve some recognition within the States?
Christian Grass: The American music market is very interesting because of a very high diversification, especially in electronic music. In my eyes the artists are extremely creative and experimental in a combination of styles. So in relation to the market size you can reach a broad range of open minded and interested parties. I'll do everything I can to present the music to the American audience but I am limited due to the fact that Wycombe Music is such a small, independent label. But we're staying in contact with labels like Tympanik Audio to push some things forward and get the word out.
DTC: Since you are required to maintain a job in order to make a living do you view music as more of a "hobby" or is it like a second job that's just as important as your primary source of income only not quite as lucrative?
Christian Grass: If I could make a living from this I would switch in a second to become a fulltime musician in combination with my duties in label management. But the sounds we're putting out with Wycombe Music are too special to be commercial. So I had to pursue an avenue where I can maintain a high quality level of music but with restricted time. The overwhelmingly positive response to the album Reverser motivates me to keep on working this way.
DTC: How did your original appreciation evolve into a desire to make music regularly and why did you choose this particular style over more traditional Rock or Jazz? Have you ever received any formal training and learned to play any instruments?
Christian Grass: I only have basic skills in reading music and notes and learned to play the flute through music lessons at school. But I didn't want to stop there in creating my own music. I'm a fan of wired electronic sounds and the combinations inherent in that fascinated me. It's an addiction of searching and creating in which you can lose yourself.
DTC: Reverser represents the first time in the High Wycombe project where you essentially had to go it alone. How do you think that affected the final result and do you think it would have been a much different release had Martin been more available?
Christian Grass: Even before Reverser ninety percent of High Wycombe's tracks came from me.
DTC: Then what was the dynamic between Martin and yourself like?
Christian Grass: Our approach was very different but collaboratively very interesting. Martin gave some songs the final touch with his sound fiddling.
DTC: So what's the status between you two? Is there a chance for future collaborations or has it become too difficult with the divergent paths your lives have taken?
Christian Grass: At the moment I see no real chance for a re-opt-in/comeback in this collaboration because of our different styles and motivations. The musicians in our band Concise took over Martin's performance role on stage as well. From my point of view this cut-off was only consequent. Of course it's a pity but also the same story of bands like Beefcake (now a solo project called Kattoo) seeking further development.
DTC: As far as composing is concerned, do you get rhythms and melodies in your head and try to reproduce them through your equipment or do most of your songs arise from experimentation and playing around with sounds and ideas that arise through discovery?
Christian Grass: It's much more like the latter explanation - playing around with sounds. Some songs grow out of the rehearsal sessions with Concise. These basic ideas were too strange for the electro pop project but perfect for High Wycombe. Putting the ideas into the sequencer and the steps taken next often would be accomplished by sitting with a laptop, midi-keyboard and headphones in the corner or on the balcony.
DTC: Is it ever difficult to stop messing around with each track or to come up with an ending?
Christian Grass: Some tracks need more than hundred hours of work before finishing because I'm such a stickler for details.
DTC: Your music with High Wycombe is less club oriented now. What's your attitude toward the music that gets played in the clubs and why are you now branching off in a different direction with more atmosphere and complexity in the compositions?
Christian Grass: Oh sure, the sound of High Wycombe is very complex and often unwieldy but in my eyes there is a way to bring this sound onto the industrial dance floor. The first steps were taken with the album Retoure and further with Reverser adding much more rhythm. With the support of live musicians I hope to come closer to compositions that easily balance complexity and club oriented music. The long term aim should be to produce bizarre electronic music for your legs and headphones (laughs).
DTC: In your bio it states that the name High Wycombe was found in a book about Naval forces during WWII. But what specifically appealed to you about the name that you felt it described what you were going for musically? Can you elaborate on why you saw it as the best title for your project and the music you produce?
Christian Grass: The name High Wycombe was chosen intentionally. First of all, the sound of that name fascinated us. Secondly, it was a proper name (before that we thought about names like "Silent Noise," for example). We wanted to be unique and sit close to one of our favourite projects, Haujobb, on the shelf of the music store. We learned very fast that the sleepy town had next to nothing to do with our music and we could name our project after any other village because of modest achievements within the town. Regardless of that we received feedback from institutions in H.W. and from people who were born there who found us on the internet which seemed a really nice and welcome promotional side effect for an unknown music project!
DTC: What is it about the area in which you grew up that you feel influenced you to be the person you are today? For someone who has never visited Rostock can you describe what it was like to be raised in such an environment and how it personally affected you and the music you make?
Christian Grass: Since I live and work in Berlin and only have time on the weekend to be in Rostock I have come to value that town close to the Baltic Sea with its nice coast, beach and possibilities for sailing. The artwork of Retoure and Reverser was chosen very consciously and reflects my roots and the cold, Nordic style of music.
DTC: You've put out an impressive body of work over the past decade. Your influences are evident but what new artists have really impressed you? Is there anyone that you've heard who makes you think you really need to step up your game? Who impresses you?
Christian Grass: I'm really interested in projects of creative heads like Daniel Myer (Haujobb, Architect), Volker Kahl (ex-Beefcake), Thomas Jenkinson (Squarepusher), Alan Wilder (ex-DM, Recoil), etc. And with respect toward these and a lot of other musicians I think High Wycombe is a really small light. With technical possibilities today nearly everybody is able to make good music. But from my point of view it needs a whole concept as well to impress and convince the audience. It's really disappointing if somebody with a great album stands behind his laptop on stage bobbing his head up and down without any emotion while vital spark never jumps over. The last impressive concerts I saw were Squarepusher (with their virtuoso bass player), the Electro/Hip Hop band Deichkind and This Morn' Omina during the Elektroanschlag event.
DTC: What's been your experience with running your own independent label as a means to promote and distribute your music? Would you rather have the support of a larger organization behind you or does this seem to suit your purposes just fine?
Christian Grass: In 1998 Wycombe Music was founded as a door opener for our own project High Wycombe in order to contact the magazines and that worked during the initial steps. But for larger activities we don't have enough man power and funding to push a project forward faster where print and online campaigns are concerned, as well as bookings and so on. On the other hand the regressive CD market and the sensory overload of online portals did serve to slow down the acquisition of new listeners. So the only way is to convince potential audiences with live gigs and with the support of a larger organization that has the relevant contacts.
DTC: Are there any specific artists with whom you would really like to hook up and collaborate? Would these people be idols of yours or just artists you think your own style might compliment well, creating something fun and unique that people could appreciate?
Christian Grass: Any artist who impressed me on stage; Haujobb, Kattoo, Squarepusher and of course Skinny Puppy...IAMX - and many more. I have no concrete artists in my mind regarding collaboration but I think you could learn a lot from their experience and methods of operating.
DTC: With everything High Wycombe has achieved up to this point, where do you go from here? What goals have you set for yourself and where would you like to see the act in another five years?
Christian Grass: Besides convincing and growing our audience the aim is to create a substantial stage experience and to expand the musician network for worldwide collaboration in a small electronic music niche market.
See also: Review: Reverser