John Roberts

"There is a vocabulary missing with digital media"

Foto: Palomino Print

John Robert’s public persona has managed a delicate balance: With his first album Glass Eights a hype around him unleashed, yet he kept following his own path. He followed up Glass Eights with a slew of EPs and two LPs, the most recent being Plum, which came out this month. Apart from his work as a producer, the New York-based artist has published a magazine, founded his own multimedia label Brunette Editions and is currently finishing up a film. It shows that John Roberts is a man with various interests. We caught up with Roberts before the premiere of Plum at Pop-Kultur on August 31.



At Pop-Kultur, you will be presenting your new album Plum with a series of short films. What is your concept of the overall performance? Is there anything specific you want to transmit to your audience?
This work is meant to be shown as an alternative to a conventional live performance, with the intention of disrupting the current idol-worship models prevailing live music, which I don’t personally relate to. I wanted to focus on more egalitarian and contemporary modes of disseminating aesthetic experiences, so the piece is suited for a multitude of formats, from movie theaters and galleries, to computer screens and mobile phones. I was interested in the shifts in experience brought about by the varying contexts in which it might be shown.

For „Orah (Distilled)“ you already released a music video by Saluki, which to me looks very impressionistic, in the most literal sense of the word. Will the film to Plum be similar or is it supposed to be more like a „classic“, narrative film?
The film for Plum is not narrative in a linear sense, but it does showcase discreet moments in time. So I suppose it tells a series of micro-narratives through these filmed instances. I was more concerned with capturing a specific feeling.

Video: John RobertsOrah (Distilled)

Does the artwork of Plum show stills from the film? Did you have a certain visual aesthetic in mind?
I imagine music in a very visual way. Certain sounds call up specific images to the forefront of my mind and I try to curate this collection of images and use each song as the equivalent of a display case. The artwork for “Plum” is more of a mood board for the film, as it is made up of 35mm and iPhone photos that I’d taken over the last couple of years that exemplified the feeling that I was looking for while making this particular set of music. I finished the artwork for the album before starting on the film itself.

Did you finish the album, and then make the film, or did you do the album with the film already in mind? Did these thoughts change your approach to the production of the music?
I finished the album first, and then began filming right away in New York as I was riding in taxis and walking around the city. I ended up filming a lot of clothing and cars – fabrics that were dyed or textured in ways that appealed to me…pant legs draped over orthopedic shoes…car paint jobs with deep reflexivity that I had imagined while originally designing some of the sounds for the music.


In your last album Fences you used field recordings from several places, amongst them Kyoto. On Plum you use these non-Western sounds again, in some instruments as well as in some melodies. Why do you like using these kind of sounds?
I think it’s a very complicated musical and intellectual territory when we start dividing sounds up into “Western and Non-Western.” These kinds of distinctions don’t feel productive or interesting to me. I just use notes that feel appealing to me, in an order that makes sense to me personally. With things like melody, I’m really just building structures in a semi-conscious state and I usually don’t have any idea where they’ve come from once I’ve finished. This part of music making feels very automatic to me.

In an interview with Inverted Audio last year, you said you were working on an album for Dial. How come you released it on your own label Brunette Editions in the end?
I wanted to focus on growing Brunette Editions into something vital and singular, and I knew that I would have to devote all of my energy to the project in order to do that. Fortunately, Dial has always been very encouraging and supportive of all of my projects.

Staying a bit on the topic of Brunette: I’ve read that you wanted to include collaborations on it, but also have difficulties with satisfying collaborations. Will the yet to be announced Brunette 003 and 005 include collaborations or have you changed your mind about doing it?
I’ve been exploring different forms of collaboration lately, from songwriting with other artists, to “curating” or “art directing” releases for the label. Working with other people is very exciting to me at the moment.

“Currently, there is a vocabulary missing with digital media which only physical products can transmit”

You have announced to bring out a film digitally and on 8mm. Why the choice of 8mm? Does this format have a special meaning for you?
Super 8mm is the native format that these pieces were filmed on. I don’t have any personal connection to the format beyond an aesthetic and formal one. I wanted the imagery to look dreamlike and a bit unplaceable, time-wise, and after doing tests with different cameras, this is something that felt easiest to achieve through the slightly soft, “melted-image” quality of small format film. I also liked the potential randomness of “in camera editing” which is possible on a Super 8mm camera, where an image of a yellow umbrella might, by chance, land perfectly next to a banana peel due to the order in which those items were filmed. In the end, in order for the project to be more easily edited and projected, the film was transferred to digital.

Looking at your Travel Almanac and the clear flexi disc you released this year, the subject of the medium itself seems to be quite important for you. Do you think the message of a piece changes with the medium it is released on?
Absolutely. I think that digital distribution is incredibly exciting, as it allows for limited or unlimited editions at virtually no cost, and the added ability to reach a worldwide audience. But currently, there is a vocabulary missing with digital media which only physical products can transmit, i.e. touch, smell, taste. These can be equally important senses to cater to, depending on what type of release one is working towards. With The Travel Almanac, we spent a long time choosing the right weight of interior and exterior paper stocks. The exterior stock has a small tooth, sort of like a miniature brail that stimulates your hand as you hold it, and the interior paper is soft and uncoated, so it also allows the ink to expand slightly as the printing interacts with the paper, giving images a vaguely hazy feel. In regard to the flexi disc – they have a notoriously poor sound quality and are prone to being scratched. “Six,” the song that I chose to put on the disc, was already the most lo-fi of the album, so I thought it would be nice to find a medium that pushed that sound even further, introducing noise artifacts at random, so that essentially each unit pressed offered a slightly different listening experience.

John Roberts will present his album Plum and the film for it at Pop Kultur Festival Berlin, on the 31st of August at Passage Kino Neukölln.


Pop-Kultur Header
August 31 – September 02, 2016

Line-Up: Abra, Al English, Alex.Do, Alice Cohen, Algiers, Andreas Müller, Ana Ana, A-Wa, Best Friends, Brandt Brauer Frick, Cat’s Eyes, Colin Newman, Deadbear, Diät, Dirk Schneider, Dr. Heike Raab, Eska, Exploded View, Ezra Furman, Fai Baba, Fatima Al-Qadiri, Fishbach, Frankie Cosmos, Girls, Names, Hartwig Vens, Heimer, Hendrik Otremba, Imarhan, Immersion, Jens Balzer, Juliana Huxtable, John Roberts, Jon Savage, Josh Hall, Karies, Kathrin Wessling, Keøma, Levin Goes Lightly, Liars, LUH, Malcom Middleton, Mark Farrow, Matthew Herbert, Mc Graf Fidi, Miko, Missincat, Mogwai, Mule & Man, My Bubba, Naked, Nancy Pants, No Joy, Pins, Phil Collins, Richard Hell, Roosevelt, Royal Comfort, rRoxymore, Ryan Vail, Ryan Mahan, Sassyblack, Schwund, Scott King, Selda Bagcan & Boom Pam, Show Me The Body, Skinny Girl Diet, Sarah Miles, Stara Rzeka, Tellavision, The Hidden Cameras, The KVB, The Numero Group, The Weather Station, Thurston Moore Band, Tim Renner, Tobias Bamborschke, Metronomy, Trümmer, Tygapaw, U.S. Girls, Valerie Trebeljahr, White Wine, Zebra Katz, Zola Jesus

Tickets: single events from 8€

Various venues

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