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THE TYPE OF EMOTIONS, FEELINGS AND IDEAS THAT YOU CAN CREATE WITH AMBIENT MUSIC ARE JUST DIFFERENT: AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS SSG

Kir & Val (CultKitchen), 31.10.2021

Val: I looked through some of the interviews that I found on the internet. I was really surprised with the music that you listened to in your youth, like Public Enemy, and I'm a big fan of them. But, you know what I wanted to ask you... What was your first meeting with ambient music? How did you get into it? Because I didn't find this gap between Public Enemy and clubbing, so what was in between?


Chris SSG: Public Enemy was my starting point for non-mainstream music. Ambient came later, after I got into techno. When I was growing up in Melbourne, there was a pretty strong experimental scene, and there was a record store around it called Synaesthesia. I got exposed to a lot of interesting music there. And a really important influence for me early on was the Mego label. As I mentioned, this mix is dedicated to Peter Rehberg, also known as PITA, who was the founder of Mego, and later the Editions Mego label. Around that time, the music he was making and the music coming out on Mego was a big influence on me.

And looking back, when first learning about music, whether it's ambient or techno or whatever, you don't necessarily understand the different genres. Once you start knowing more about the music, you have these expectations, and you go looking for things. At the beginning, you don't really know what you're doing, and you don't know what is ambient or whatever genre, you just listen to things and then slowly you start to build up a map. That is how it was for me.


Val: But at least, I think it doesn't matter whether to divide music into genres or not. What for?


Chris SSG: Yes, I think for me the more I listened, the more I developed these mental maps, which would shape what I'm looking for. But I remember early on, listening to DJ Hell mixes and not really knowing what music it was, and then a few years later, I realized: “Oh wait, I was listening to electro, and I was listening to Italo”. But I didn't know it then. In a way, that lack of knowledge and openness was pretty nice, I could listen in a different way.

 

At that time (late 90s / early 00s), the experimental music I was listening to felt quite separate and removed from the techno I was also exploring. But one place where there was a crossover was in chillout rooms at raves and some club parties. There would be a room playing just ambient and experimental music. Spending time in those spaces was a really formative experience for me. Having an open space for different styles of music, and then people accidentally finding music they connect with, it gave really powerful ideas and motivations for me.


Val: That's true because when I first played some ambient & experimental music in the club after, I don't know, 15 years of listening to it, I was so shocked how it sounds and how it affects people in the room. So, I really was about to cry after that.


Chris SSG: Yes, I know what you mean. One thing about techno and house music is that it operates in a pretty narrow band, and with ambient, there's more space in the music and there can be more range. This means you can explore the speakers in different ways, and people can hear sounds differently, and this can all be very powerful. As you suggested, you can tap into different emotions. All of these aspects are very interesting for me to explore and attracted me to DJing ambient.

 

One of the challenging things with presenting ambient or non-dance music is we've always thought about electronic music in the context of a club and people dancing. But then there is so much other interesting music that sounds amazing on a big system and deserves to be heard. The challenge as an artist and as an organizer is how to create the right context for people to appreciate these other forms of electronic music.


Kirill: That's somehow connected to my second question. From time to time, I hear different opinions from people about ambient music. They say that it's boring or for listening in the background, some people say that it's even just some kind of noise. What is ambient music for you? What is so special about it for you personally, and why do you find it interesting?


Chris SSG: I don't like this idea of ambient music as background music, the Brian Eno definition of it. I'm not a fan of this. I think any type of music should provoke a reaction. Coming back to what we were discussing before, the type of emotions, feelings and ideas that you can create with ambient music are just different. I listen to a lot of techno and other forms of electronic music, which I all appreciate, but I think ambient provides something else. For instance, I think it's good having ambient at parties. But then there's also a point when the ambient music needs to stop, and it's good to dance. And ultimately, I enjoy listening to non-dancefloor electronic music, so for me, it's quite natural to want to hear this on a big sound system and want to play it for people when the environment is right.


Kirill: Thank you so much. The next question is a bit personal for me because as we already discussed over email. Your mix for Residents Advisor is a big inspiration for me. So maybe you can share some thoughts or why it was so special for you. Is there any story behind it?


Chris SSG: Yes, there definitely is a story behind it. My start in electronic music was actually writing for Resident Advisor in the mid-2000s, very early on, so there's that connection. And RA is obviously a big platform, so being asked to make a mix for them was important.

 

The invitation to do the podcast came at a real low point in my life. A lot of important personal things went wrong, and it was a very difficult period for me. Doing the mix at that moment was something really personally valuable and meaningful. It was also the first mix of the new year, it was nice being able to start the year in a positive way. Over the years, I have developed an approach to DJing, a way of presenting ambient music. The RA podcast was a place where I could present that. Coming back to this idea of ambient being as background music, I also think part of the problem is that often performers playing ambient or experimental don't think enough about how to present it. One thing that good dancefloor DJs really know how to do is to engage the audience. Sometimes this thinking is lost with non-dancefloor music, and I have really worked on how to present ambient in a way that can engage and hopefully capture the audience. I think you can do that with ambient music if you structure the mix in the right way, if you make contrasts, if you change energies, if you have pivotal tracks in the set, and so on. In the RA mix, I was trying to show my approach to doing this.


Val: We have listened to this mix many times while being on Madeira Island, and we were doing a lot of hiking, in that absolutely stunning places. 


Chris SSG: Yeah, ambient music outdoors is amazing. Listening to ambient, also DJing ambient outdoors is the best. It is a really powerful combination.


Val: I see that the ambient music and all that non-dance music means a lot to you emotionally. But what do you think, does music owe something to anybody? I mean, a lot of musicians put some political statements. They have a lot in the background of their art besides the music itself. So, what do you think about it?


Chris SSG: On one level, everything is political. We all have our own positions and biases, and these are always going to shape what we think and do. And the idea that electronic music can be completely divorced from politics and from power is a bit naive. There needs to be space for thinking and talking about these issues. But I think there also needs to be an acceptance that for some people they are not going to see politics as an important part of music, and they don’t want to engage on that level, and that is OK.

 

I would also say that if you're going to do politics, do it properly. Seriously engage. This means being open to other people and other positions, it means engaging in discourse and listening. It also means taking the time to think, to learn, to be receptive to different ideas, different positions and be willing to change your mind. But this is often missing. Bluntly speaking, my biggest problem is not that we are talking about political issues in electronic music, but that a lot of the time it's not being done in a very productive way. There are better and worse ways of talking about and thinking through these issues, and we need to find ways of having better discussions.


Kirill: Ok, cool. Just taking a small step back. You said that you like to perform outdoors. Can you remember the most unusual location or the most memorable one?


Chris SSG: In terms of my career, the most important outdoor one has been playing at the Organik music festival in Taiwan, which is put on by the Smoke Machine crew. It is by a beach in Taiwan, a very beautiful environment. They curate the lineup really well, so you go through different energies and sounds across the festival.

 

When I have played, I've basically been tasked with the sunrise set. After a heavy night of techno, then as the sun goes up, the party transitions into ambient and into rest. I was able to play that slot for four years in a row, actually, before the pandemic. What's been really positive about that is, as well as playing in this beautiful environment, each year seeing the way that people have come to understand the concept better. The first year when the ambient started, people didn't fully understand, some were frustrated and wanted to keep on dancing. But by the last time I played, almost everybody was ready for the transition: the night of techno was fun, and they were ready for the next part of the party. If you can understand that energy at that moment, you can create something really powerful and that's really interesting to explore. So that event has been very important to me as a DJ and also personally.

 

When you DJ outdoors, it adds a whole extra dimension to playing because it's not just about beauty, it's also about the weather. There was a party I played last year, when I was opening, and I was playing really nice ambient and just building it slowly. And then a typhoon started. So, I stopped playing ambient and immediately switched to beats because listening to ambient during the typhoon isn't going to work. The audience needs more energy with that kind of weather. Learning how to DJ to match the weather and what type of music you need to play is really important. Another example is also from Organik: one year I played, and the sun was really strong, so it was too hot. And when it's too hot, you're not going to have a really deep experience because you can't focus that much. I needed to change my plan, and play lighter music. Some DJs really don't adjust to the challenge of playing outdoors, but others are incredibly good at it, like not just with ambient, but also with techno. The weather is a very interesting variable as a DJ.

Val: Moving to the mix that you prepared for our listeners, what is the story behind it? I don't believe that there is no story behind it, by the way.

Chris SSG: Over the summer I struggled with motivation. Things were feeling a bit tired. I decided to step back. I wasn't taking any bookings. I wasn't even mixing at home for enjoyment. Things were also very weird in Japan. We had the Olympics, and there was this strange, negative energy, and everything was kind of paused. Then the opportunity to do a mix for you guys came at the right moment when things were changing, and I was recovering my motivation.

 

We were moving into the autumn, which is a special time in Japan. It's really the best time of the year. So, partly, I just wanted to put together a mix that matches with the feeling of autumn. For example, there is a Coil track in the mix, which for me has a strong autumn vibe. And the other thing was, towards the end of summer, Peter Rehberg passed away. I knew him, but not well, still he had such a massive impact on my musical trajectory. I wanted to acknowledge him here, and the track from him is the pivot on which the mix turns. And that's kind of how it came together.

 

When I prepare a podcast, I always like to leave some hints. So, there are a couple of major tracks in there, and then there are a couple of producers where it's an opportunity for listeners to look at the tracklist and then go exploring. And they can find some really interesting stuff if they decide to do that.

Kirill: Yeah, we will definitely share the tracklist when we publish the podcast. So, it's time for the last question that we are asking all the artists that participated in the podcast since the first one. Could you name a place on planet Earth where you would recommend listening to this podcast? It can be an exact place, or maybe some description of a location.

Chris SSG: Outdoors with the autumn foliage, if possible. After recording this mix, the first time I listened to it was sitting in Shinjuku Gyoen park in late afternoon, just enjoying the autumn weather. This was lovely. So, if possible, going for a walk or somewhere outside would be a nice way to enjoy this mix.