Dem Hunger’s music is pretty hard to categorise. Chopped up, fucked about and mangled samples laid over dischordant feedback, Bollywood soundtracks, 8-bit, played on a tape that sounds like it’s been left on a car dashboard to melt in the sun for too long. It’s not for the faint hearted…and yet I love it. That said, I was a little concerned about meeting, his twitter stream is an outlet for his alter ego Susie Sahara who rants in block capitals and reads like a care in the community casualty. But Louis Johnstone in the flesh is disarming and very talkative. Over a bitterly cold evening sat outside The Dove on Broadway market and countless belgian beers, I got to grips with the man and his hunger.
What were your early musical influences?
The Ghostbusters soundtrack, bought for me by dad on vinyl. Then he bought the ‘Final Countdown’. He and I used to dance together round the house to it.
Did you like his taste in music?
I did, yeah. I hadn’t worked it out at that point, I was still listening to what was in the charts, like most kids do. Basically, he was into Jimmy Hendrix and he suggested I learn to play guitar. This was when I was about 11 and I started to take lessons. From there I used to make my own songs up and got really into Green Day, I was a Green Day maniac, this was in 94/95, and then I got into pop punk and it went from there, all the West Coast, like NoFX and used to play in punk bands.
How was your guitar playing?
I was pretty much self taught, power chords. I can still play although I haven’t played for a long time. I got into Fugazi, Minutemen, I was a massive Descendents fan. Then I progressed to Black eyes, on the cusp of 2000, post hardcore, then Godspeed you Black Emperor, Mogwai, and then Ghostface, Madlib etc. I had a jazz phase too. Coltrane obviously. I discovered that Coltrane did this collaboration with Rashid Ali, a two piece, Coltrane on tenor, and Rashid Ali on drums around 66/7, really pushing the genre. I felt I had to play saxophone. Started making up fucking weird shit, playing gigs on my own, with an instrument I couldn’t play. I’d have a tape deck with loops and I’d play sax over it.
I looked on Discogs today and it said that you also go by Saxophones, Wanda’s group and Tigerpiss.
There’s Motherships and The Hers as well. Tigerpiss was me fucking about with a glockenspiel and a snare drum basically. Motherships was my singer/songwriter stuff. I like to sing. I’d say I’m in the Tom Waits/Scott Walker school of singing. The deep voice helps. If you sing with a deep voice, everyone thinks you’re genuine. Then I really got into the DIY ethic, Calvin Johnston, that lo-fi vibe. I bought a four track, started writing songs on guitar.
So how did Dem Hunger come about and what inspired the name?
I was doing some artwork, merging two images together, focusing on the symmetry. I made about 8 pictures, and for every one, I was going to write a song. It was a starting point for a project. I can’t just launch into something, it has to be based on a concept. I’ll wake up one day and set myself a month to work on something.
But in terms of the name Dem Hunger itself, I get obsessed with certain words. I had a ‘milk’ stage, just the word, not the drink itself. It was originally going to be Dem Culture, because I really liked the way the word culture looked, and sounded. Then I got into the word hunger. Simple as that really. it’s like a piece of art that you like the way it looks. For me, it was the same thing with words.
So words are quite important to you? It’s one of the things I noticed that got my attention and inspired me was the titles of your tracks on your Caveman Smack LP, for example.
It’s all so thought out. I’ve always been good at writing ‘soundbites’, as opposed to creating a story. That’s all it is. It’s enjoyable.
Did you want there to be a relationship between the song titles and the music?
The idea with Cavemen Smack was I wanted it to sound like if cavemen had different technology at the time, and the idea progressed from there, if they had had the tools, what would come from that. If I had the guts, I would have just let it be completely slapdash, a completely horrible audible experience.
There isn’t a face to your music as such, was this a conscious decision? Do you hide behind your various alter egos? Your twitter and facebook personas for example are these fictitious characters you create.
It’s why I ummed and ahed a little about being photographed for the work:ethic interview.
Can you tell us a bit more about the writing and creative process, the software and equipment you use etc.
In terms of the way I make my music, I don’t sequence anything. I might record something one day and come back to it later. It’s all really archaic. I’ve got an old MPD, I wanted an MPC but I couldn’t afford one. It was the last thing my ex-girlfriend ever bought me. A demo version of Fruity Loops, which I use to convert the MPD, and then I have a Polderbits sound recorder, which I use to convert vinyl to MP3. You can use it for internal and external sound, and I’ve used that and had the same programme for 11 years. I always expect mistakes and I like it, there were loads incorporated into Caveman Smack. I’m trying to teach myself not to hold back. I used to set myself a 4 hour window, and make myself produce. Lately I might work for an hour and get 10 seconds worth of material I’ll use. I wish I had a reel to reel and cut tapes, but it’s all about time and money. If I gave myself free reign I wouldn’t be able to do anything, it’s by limiting myself that I do it. Hence giving myself a story or concept to guide me.
I got into trouble recently, Hyperdub wanted me to do something for them, but I made up a story that I was doing a split with Burial. I woke up one day before work and had an email from the Hyperdub guy and he said he’d had about 1000 emails, because everyone’s waiting for new Burial material after a 2 year wait, and I didn’t think it would snowball like that because I tweeted it. After a telling off he still said if I wanted to submit material I could. Hyperdub want me to do a full length but I’m not ready for that, it scares the shit out of me, because i know they’re going to criticise me for it not being good enough, or pay me advance to make something, as opposed to me make it and getting a return from the sale of the records, which I’m more comfortable with.
Have you played out live? How have live performances been received?
I probably won’t ever play live with Dem Hunger. I’m not as confident as I was when I was 19/20. I over think it.
But if you were to play out would it be a DJ set as opposed to live?
I’d want to do something that people probably wouldn’t like. I like doing my own thing. It fucks off the audience. I’ve played live in the past, sax, tape deck. I played at the Old Blue Last. The guy from Fuck Buttons, prior to being in the band used to put on shows. I played with Lucky dragons on one occasion too. He really liked my music, regardless of what I wanted to do live. I’d just turn up with whatever I felt like on the day. That was fun, it was when I had the guts to do it. I didn’t give a fuck back then. But you get to that stage when people are expecting something of me as Dem Hunger, and it plays on my mind. When I used to play shows, I used to challenge myself. I would give myself a challenge or a limitation, such as for a certain show, I might just allow myself a bass guitar and a kick drum. Or just sing with a loop pedal, or use old soul songs.
Tell me a little bit about your artwork.
It sounds like a cliche but it was just like a need, the idea of spending my time after work or after school creating something. I drink a lot on my own, instead of going out with friends…the best nights I’ve had have been drinking on my own. I don’t ever get bored in my own company. It was relaxing, time to myself, and a sense of achievement, even if no one else gets it. Everything I put out, I want 100% artistic control over, I’m pretty rigid like that. I’m a bit of a control freak in that respect. With Caveman Smack I had total artistic control, except for the colour of the tape. With the Wanda Group on New New Age cassettes I chose the layout etc. I made up the fake women in the band, it lists four members, but obviously it’s just me, to suggest the idea of a 60s soul group.
A bit like Throbbing Gristle, the cover and title they chose for their 20 Jazz Funk Greats LP, the idea that you don’t know what you’re going to get. I might buy something in a record shop purely on the strength of the cover, I like the idea of the cover being the opposite of the music.
What’s your view on the resurgence of cassette as a viable format?
I think it’s good because it’s cheap to produce. It’s an interesting package. It’s a way of getting loads of it out there. I’s a nice format, it’s soft, it’s warm, it’s pretty hard to break.
Do you think your day job positively or adversely affects your music?
Work gives you structure. I come home and I know that I have a limited amount of time to make music, say a 3 or 4 hour window. The best thing is not to have internet. It’s the bane of my life. I like the idea of staying at home and being on benefits, and making lots of music, but the reality is that I wouldn’t end up making anything.
What’s lined up for this year?
In terms of what I’m meant to do, it’s a split Dem Hunger/Svetlana release. There’s another group I’m working on, and by that I mean me, called The Cleaners, that will be an extension of Wanda Group. Oneotrixpointnever has started a new label called Mexican Summer and perhaps I’ll work with them, and NNA tapes wants to put out The Cleaners thing. They’re going to send me all the tapes they’ve released over the last year, and I’ll make a remix tape based on that material.
Check out his latest split with Cuppcave on Vlek records
You can buy his full length LP ‘Caveman Smack’ from excellent LA based Leaving Records
EXCLUSIVE TRACK : Wanda Group – woman woman woman woman : download
Marianne Hobb’s Radio 1 Dem Hunger mix : download
All Artwork by Demhunger, made especially for this interview
Yesterday I got to say my final goodbyes to yia-yia. I wasn’t expecting to write a follow up piece, yet neither was I prepared for the anxiety and barrage of emotions I would feel following her death.
It might sound selfish, but I couldn’t help thinking of myself in the equation; my relationship with my mother and her being so many thousands of miles away in the UK, the cruel and transitory nature of life and death, reflecting on my own life thus far and how much I identified with my grandmother’s spontaneity and her joie de vivre. I was also wracked with guilt, for I had not been to visit her in her final weeks in hospital, having been ill myself for 10 days during that time and working. I guess I was also finding excuses not to go, the fact that the hospital was far away and that visiting hours were short. In reality, I didn’t think I could face seeing her tubed up to the hilt so I chickened out. My last visit to the old people’s home had not been a pleasant one.
I realised I omitted several things in my homage to Alicia. For many years she ran a successful bookshop, which, although tucked away in a sleepy precinct, had its loyal customers. To this day my mother still has some of the embossed stationary. My brother also made an interesting point in an email to me, pointing out that the move to Rhodes may have been unusual but how many people wished they had done something similar rather than just dream about it? I can certainly relate to this with the reactions of friends and acquaintances when I took the decision to move to Buenos Aires.’ You’re brave’ and ‘I’m envious’ was the general consensus. Yet strangely, I felt neither brave nor lucky, just resolute about my need to go to Argentina, and certain I had exhausted London, the rest I would make up as I went along. In the same way, Alicia didn’t agonise over decision making, she just followed her heart.
Yesterday was the first time I looked death in the face, literally. In spite of the somberness of the occasion, I found myself making light of death at various times during the day. As I sat in the waiting room of the funeral director’s office and my grandfather dealt with the paperwork, I spotted a desktop calendar. Every month was a delectable take on the coffin building process with full colour prints to illustrate. Coffin fun for all the family, I thought. I stole June for posterity.
My grandfather had organised for he and I to have a brief moment alone with my granny before she was transported to the crematorium as there wasn’t to be a service. As I entered the room, my instinct was to recoil in horror as I was confronted with an open casket, something I was not mentally prepared for. Having never seen a dead body before, I turned my back and steeled myself to deal with what I was about to witness. Yet as I gingerly approached the coffin, my fear and anxiety dissipated. She looked angelic and so at peace, or at any rate, this shell of my grandmother did. Although I am essentially agnostic, I had the pervading feeling that her essence or spirit or whatever it was that had injected life into her body had long since departed. She looked delicate and fragile like a waxwork doll. For those ten minutes, as my grandfather gripped my hand tight and we said our goodbyes, time stood still.
Yesterday my granny passed away. The same week i turned 30. She had been ill for 4 years, afflicted with a vascular dementia which had robbed us of the Alicia we knew and left in her place a wizened, frail and delightfully sweet old lady but not someone we identified with, and neither, it would appear, did she us.
I am particularly sad, because she was unable to realise herself fully during her lifetime. I guess, in part, I also identify with her, my mother has always said I share many of the same character traits. In essence, my grandmother was a dreamer, a fantasist for the most part. A lady who upped sticks and left Argentina on a whim on divorcing my grandfather with a small son in tow, leaving the rest of the family in Buenos Aires for the Greek island of Rhodes, undeniably a paradisiacal place, but not the obvious choice of destination. A lady who, as rashly as she had arrived left this idyll a month short of 10 years of residency and thus eligibility for citizenship.
On returning from Greece, she choose to settle in a small town on the coast of Argentina in the only house she owned, that which had been the family retreat most summer holidays…except that Villa Gesell shuts down during the winter months, becoming a virtual ghost town. She took the most sublimely beautiful photographs and we often encouraged her to get them made into postcards and exploit her talents, yet the fact that she didn’t own a car and her irrational fear of dogs restricted her movements around the town and encroached on her personal freedom, a sorry predicament for someone who had always been such an avid walker.
Yet she sought refuge and solace in her books and was a voracious reader in all the languages she spoke, being Franco-Argentine and with a predisposition to autodictactism she also had an impressive command of English, in her late sixties she decided to teach herself Hindi so as to be able to communicate in her Indian penpal’s native tongue. She was unbelievably well read and cultured, her literary love affair with Proust endured a lifetime.
She was also the most gifted piano player, the way in which her fingers softly caressed those 88 black and white keys and the sound she produced enveloped and entranced anyone within earshot.
Her relationship with my grandfather was not a particularly happy one, both recriminating the other for lovers they took, either blatantly or covertly. My grandmother was Catholic when it suited her, she had a long term love affair with a priest from the faith, whose name even in her senility would register a flicker of recognition in her eyes.
It would ultimately be her undoing, for she decided to sell the house about 8 years ago and follow him to Israel in a vain bid to attempt to rekindle their love. Her flights of fancy also precluded her from possessing any pragmatism when it came to money. She spent a large chunk of the proceeds from the sale of her house transporting her treasured Bluthner piano to France for her son to look after, but it didn’t take kindly to the journey, the changes in ambient temperature and humidity wreaked havoc on the wood which shrank, expanded and warped in disgust accordingly; what once had been a highly valuable instrument now deemed practically worthless.
Quite clearly she lived a life spent running away from or vainly searching for her identity. In spite of her unfulfilled dreams, it was largely her indomitable spirit which made made her such a unique and interesting individual, yet I would have have been curious to see what more she might have accomplished, had there been an element of common sense and constancy in the equation.
The irony of the piece is that she was a complex, difficult and quite embittered individual in her lucid state and yet it took mental illness for her to shed her anger along with the little weight she had put on in her senior years.
She fascinated me, for bucking trends and living such an unorthodox existence. She was prodigious and at the same time her own worst enemy. This galvanises me and inspires me to keep focused and continue to embrace the kind of fears she battled with regarding her own self worth and talent.
Alicia Renard: born 15 December 1929, died 10 July 2010
“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common – this is my symphony.” – William Henry Channing (1810-1884)
Those little things. The acts of kindness that perhaps only register as significant on our own personal radars. As I get older, it’s those intimate gestures, the thoughtful birthday cards (as opposed to the presents), the handwritten notes and letters through the post that gratify far more than the impersonal medium of email. In the same way, an expensive meal out can be surpassed simply by being made breakfast in bed by someone you really dig; as if you’d made it yourself with all the right components and the tea at optimum drinking temperature.
images: personal, weheartit
I’d like to share on a regular basis things that inspire me, through words and pictures.
This week, it’s windswept hair. I’m a little like Samson, my hair is my strength.
I remember once a few years ago, I walked out of a job I particularly hated, and made a beeline for my hairdresser, at that time on Roman Road in East London. Chop it all off, I said, and it did at the time feel incredibly empowering, as if I’d unburdened myself of all the poison, offloaded all the ill feeling I’d been harbouring for weeks onto the sticky linoleum floor. But within days I felt bereft, as if somehow I’d lost a limb, although I reassured myself it was only hair, it would grow back.
Yet when I have it, wind and drizzle, so synonymous with the British weather does few favours for a good coiff. Hair rivaling a bog, or Basil’s brush is not a look I aspire to. Even in jest. Buenos Aires in the summer is no better. Being subjected to the moist, sea air makes ‘Frizz-Ease’ redundant, and if it’s not the humidity, it’s the glacial biting wind that blows my hair every which way, now that we’re in the firm grip of winter.
So here are a selection of images which inspire me to take the buffeting of wind in my stride, and even attempt a smile every once in a while. It wouldn’t hurt now would it?
images: weheartit, flickr, facebook, google images